Media : Too close to home

Model ‘American’ Paul Weitz takes on the top brass and the pop-culture machine

American Pie and About a Boy director Paul Weitz has a history of creating the semblance of reality in his movies despite such preposterous notions as Shannon Elizabeth’s willingness to sleep with Jason Biggs, or Hugh Grant’s need to manipulate women into dating him. His latest offering, American Dreamz, isn’t so persuasive. This American Idol-meets-Bush Administration satire is, if anything, so real at times that it feels unrealistic.

The President of the United States (Dennis Quaid, left) loses his marbles and winds up as a celebrity judge on a wildly popular talent show hosted by Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) in American Dreamz.

Consider stammering, recovering-alkie President Bush — er, Staton (Dennis Quaid): Following his re-election, he suffers an emotional breakdown and turns to — of all things — a newspaper for solace. It’s only then that he realizes there are two — actually three, he corrects himself on second thought — types of Iraqis. Things get worse as he realizes he knows absolutely nothing about the world and begins to devour stacks upon stacks of foreign press (even Canada’s), much to the dismay of Chief of Staff Stutter (Willem Defoe, actually pulling off Dick Cheney with a bald cap, hunch, gut, and glasses). Staton, you see, is a broken puppet, so Stutter — who is fond of declarations like, “It’s not a question of if, but when they launch a major attack that will end life on earth as we know it” — suggests “happy pills” (like the First Lady takes) and an earpiece to feed the president statements when live.

The irony is, even though the world cracks jokes about Bush and his (possibly) diminished intellect, seeing a representation of our perceptions of him onscreen actually smacks of parody despite the satirical intention.

Staton is only one of three main story threads revolving around yet another season of the wildly popular American Dreamz reality show, produced and hosted by the soulless, Simon-Cowell-esque Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant, who Weitz coaxed out of rumored retirement for the role). In casting discussions for his new season, Tweed demands that his team find “human” contestants. “And by human, I mean flawed,” he adds. “And by flawed, I mean freaks. Find me some freaks.” Later, he adds variety to the requirements: An Arab and a Jew will do. “How about an Arab Jew?” a dim assistant asks. Again, this would be funny — and, hell, it will be for some — if this sort of viewer manipulation didn’t feel so true. In fact, so uncomfortably true that it comes across as unrealistic because to believe it would make us witless consumers.

The third storyline casts the war on terrorism as an even more passive couch-potato spectator sport than American Dreamz, and is far more parodic than satirical, courtesy of Weitz’s set-up. While the United States is represented by Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a Midwestern, blond, blue-eyed Dreamz contestant who will stop at nothing to achieve fame and fortune, the terrorists are played by her good-natured Arab opponent, Omer (Sam Golzari), whose mother was killed by an American bomb. Omer, you see, was kicked out of terrorist boot camp for being incompetent, possibly semi-retarded, and just way too into show tunes. After he’s sent to the U.S. as a “sleeper agent” — his superiors merely want to get rid of him — he lands on American Dreamz, the most popular purveyor of pop gluttony the country offers and is consequently asked by his terrorist handlers to strap a bomb to his body and assassinate the season finale’s guest judge, President Staton. Since Omer is a “good terrorist,” though, he suffers from a conscience — as well as love of the mall.

American Dreamz
Dir. Paul Weitz; feat. Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Mandy Moore (PG-13)

A more interesting theme Weitz weaves through his satire is that of the puppet master, the idea that everybody is manipulated by others in some form or another, and it’s only in recognizing this truth that we’re able to see rationally. Staton is controlled by his Chief of Staff; Tweed and Sally manipulate each other through a bizarre yet convincingly real symbiotic relationship; Sally plays her Iraq-War-vet “boyfriend” (Chris Klein) like a fool; her agent plays the press. And Omer, he deals with two masters: his flamboyant cousin Iqbal (Tony Yalda) who, as he lives vicariously through Omer’s success, compares himself to Svengali, as well as the terrorists who cheer Omer on from the Middle East even as they wait anxiously for him to detonate himself into fist-sized chunks of man-meat. In other words, Weitz has crafted a bubbly, superficially bright commercial comedy daring enough to attack its audience for mindless complacency in the face of the United States’ — and the globe’s — current instability. As Omer asks, “To what degree is this country culpable for its actions? Are Americans to blame for America?”

These would be great questions if Weitz’s satirical presentation didn’t drift so close to parody because of the disconnect between reality and how, well, unrealistic our reality has become.

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